St. Augustine on the Political and Social Root of Economic Distribution

Elizabeth Stoker has an interesting quote from Augustine on her blog today that I find prescient in light of today's long back and forth about redistribution here, twitter, and on my personal blog (see I, II). Anticipating the famed Legal Realists by over 14 centuries, Augustine has this to say about economic distribution from the Tractacus in Ianoois Evangelium:

“By what right does every man possess what he possesses? Is it not by human right? For by divine right ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ (I Cor. 10:26). God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors.”

People are people. What makes them rich and poor people are distributive institutions, which are, political constructions, none of which are demanded by any permanent law of reality. To talk of "redistribution" in this understanding as if it's a coherent concept is to be in pretty serious error.

This obviously true fact was apparently rediscovered by American Legal Realists in the early 20th century and more recently expounded upon by Murphy and Nagel in their masterpiece The Myth of Ownership. But even in recognizing its obvious correctness, we all still pretend as if 18th century notions of ownership are basically tattooed into the universe, and that we should talk about economic distributions as if laissez-faire distributions are the deeply correct ones, and the rest is just legal intervening.

Comments